Why Michigan voters might be cut out of the auto no-fault debate

Oct 7, 2011

Hundreds of people showed up at the Capitol this week to speak for or against a proposal that would dramatically alter Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance law.

The overwhelming majority of the people were in favor of keeping the state’s lifetime medical coverage for injured people.

If the law is passed, and people don’t like it, the Michigan Constitution allows voters to challenge it with a referendum, but the Republican sponsors have found a way around that.

At the end of the 42-page bill that would require drivers to choose the level of auto insurance coverage they want, and end guaranteed lifetime medical coverage, there is an appropriation of $50,000.

The stated purpose of the $50,000 appropriation is to help implement the change in law.

Republican state Representative Pete Lund said the money is needed for a report and study on the effects of the law.

The framers of the Michigan Constitution wrote that any law that appropriates money is referendum proof, and they did that to ensure that the full faith and credit of the state is not jeopardized.

The Legislature typically approves measures, and then approves separate spending bills through the appropriations committees to implement those measures.

Former Republican state Representative Jim Howell said the amount of money spent on a report for the no-fault proposal is immaterial.

"I have absolutely no idea what it would cost to do that, but how you find that out is run it through the appropriations process in a separate bill and you appropriate the money to implement the bill. That’s normal," said Howell.

Howell says a lot of lawmakers may not know that technicality would deny voters the right they would otherwise have; to reject a law passed by the Legislature.

"Fifty-five members of the House are brand new. They've had nine months experience," said Howell. "They wouldn't know this, but my job is to make sure that they know it."

 Howell views it as his job because even though he’s been gone from the Legislature for a few years, the no-fault insurance issue is personal for him.

His son Sam was critically injured in a car accident. He suffered traumatic brain injury, and was in the hospital for six months.

Sam is still alive, and Howell says that's due in part to medical coverage from his auto insurance.

In talking with current legislators, Howell shares his personal story, and then reminds lawmakers that voters have already rejected similar changes to Michigan’s no-fault law.

The question was on the ballot about twenty years ago.

 "It’s happened twice before in ’92 and ’94 that the people took it in their hands and said ‘don’t touch it.’ I’m not quite sure what part of ‘No’ isn’t being understood here," said Howell.

Dr. Owen Pearlman is a specialist who has worked for 30 years to help rehabilitate car accident victims, including Jim Howell’s son.

Pearlman says Michigan voters have shown they want to maintain their auto no-fault benefits. "They were both defeated by 60-40 margins," Pearlman said of the previous attempts to make changes to the no-fault law.

He says the $50,000 appropriation is equivalent to legislators cramming a law down voters’ throats.

"In a Democratic society, the concept of not putting it up for a vote is a little unusual. I’ll leave it at that," said Pearlman.

Even so, he’s not so sure the measure won’t pass through the Legislature.

"I can only say that I hope that it doesn’t," said Perlman. "But I have to be honest about it to say that the best I can tell this may not be an issue that is decided by people’s hearts or people’s brains. In other words, they may not look at it from an emotional standpoint or an intellectual standpoint, the decision makers may make the decision from a political standpoint."

Which brings us back to Representative Lund, who gives this explanation for why the referendum-proof $50,000 appropriation is in the bill:

 "Well, you know, it's well within the rights of the Legislature, and it follows the constitution," said Lund.

When pressed further to explain why he chose to keep the appropriation in the bill, rather than pass a separate spending bill to implement a new insurance law, Lund again responded:

 "I think that’s a… we’re well within our rights to do it, and that’s the best way to do it," said Lund.

If this bill is approved, it will be the fourth time this year the Legislature passed a controversial measure that included an appropriation that makes a law referendum-proof.

The others are the repeal of the state’s item price tag law, new political redistricting maps, and expanding the state income tax to future pensioners.